Thursday, May 1, 2014

National Air Quality Awareness Week Marks Start of Ozone Season


RALEIGH – The Division of Air Quality and local air programs across the state have scheduled a number of events marking the onset of ozone season and national Air Quality Awareness Week from today through Friday.

DAQ and local air quality programs issue forecasts year-round for particle pollution and during the warmer months for ozone, which needs abundant sunlight and heat to form. Air quality has been good so far this year due to cool, wet weather but that could change quickly when the temperatures warm.

“We provide forecasts to inform people about air quality and whether health effects could be a concern,” said Sheila Holman, director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality. “People can use these forecasts to help protect their health and reduce emissions.”

Citizens can obtain air quality information and forecasts by visiting the DAQ’s website at www.ncair.org or by calling 1-888-RU4NCAIR (1-888-784-6224). People also can download a free Smart phone app by searching for “EPA AIRNow.” A list of events scheduled for Air Quality Awareness Week can be found at this page on the DAQ website.

The daily air quality forecasts focus on the pollutant likely to reach the highest level on a given day, which could be ozone or particle pollution. The color-coded forecasts show whether air quality is likely to be good (green), moderate (yellow), unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), unhealthy (red) or very unhealthy (purple).

State and local air quality programs issue air quality forecasts for ozone from April through October in the Asheville, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Hickory, Triad, Triangle and Rocky Mount metropolitan areas. Forecasts are issued for particle pollution year-round for all of the metro areas. Meteorologists issue the air quality forecasts at 3 p.m. every day for the following day. On Code Orange and Red days, the forecasts also suggest things people can do to protect their health and reduce air pollution, such as driving less.

North Carolina's most widespread air quality problem is ozone, particularly during the warmer months. High ozone levels generally occur on hot sunny days with little wind, when pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons react in the air. High levels of fine particles can occur throughout the year, particularly during episodes of stagnant air and wildfires.

Ozone, a highly reactive form of oxygen, can be unhealthy to breathe -- particularly for children, people with respiratory problems or heart disease, older adults and people who work or exercise outdoors. Exposure to high ozone levels may cause previously healthy individuals to develop asthma over time. Ozone also causes millions of dollars in tree and crop damage each year in the U.S. Currently, most of North Carolina meets the ozone standard, except for the Charlotte metro area.

Particle pollution, which consists of small particles and liquid droplets in the air, can be harmful to breathe and contributes to haze and other air quality problems. Fine particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs and absorb into the bloodstream, causing or aggravating heart and lung diseases. People most susceptible to particle pollution include those with heart and respiratory conditions, older adults and young children.

Currently, all of North Carolina meets federal particle standards, but fires and weather events can cause short-term problems. Unlike ozone, particle levels can be high during any season or at any time of the day. Sensitive groups should take special care to limit their physical activity during periods of high particle pollution.

North Carolina has taken steps to reduce levels of ozone, fine particles and other air pollutants. The General Assembly enacted the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002, which required power plants to reduce their ozone, particle and haze-forming emissions by three-fourths. Those emissions reductions have helped improve air quality in the state in recent years.

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